The much-vaunted Middle East ’road map to peace‘ has reached a dead end.
The US has even taken the outrageous, if not uncharacteristic, step of vetoing a UN resolution opposing the threatened assassination of Yasser Arafat. Most of the media blame the Palestinians for breaking the truce. However, a different picture emerges if one examines the sequence of events since the Palestinian militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs declared a three-month truce on 29 June, despite Israeli soldiers killing four Palestinians that very day.
According to phase one of the road map, Israel was required to withdraw from areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip reoccupied since 28 September 2000, to freeze all settlement activity (including ’natural growth‘) and to dismantle all settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Israel was also directed to cease demolition of Palestinian houses and confiscation of property. The plan further required Israel to lift the curfews and to remove the roadblocks which inflict constant harassment and humiliation on Palestinians. Israel also agreed to release a number of the 7,700 Palestinian prisoners mostly held without charge or trial and promised to suspend targeted assassinations of leading activists - attacks which usually kill many innocent civilians. The condition of this was that the Palestinian Authority disarm the resistance groups.
On 29 June Israel began withdrawing its troops from most of the Gaza Strip, pulling out of Bethlehem on 2 July, then on 15 August out of four additional towns. However, the Israeli army has choked off these towns with external checkpoints, retaining 160 roadblocks throughout the West Bank. And it continues to inflame Palestinian feeling by almost daily incursions into Palestinian areas, leading to arrests, house demolitions and land confiscations.
Despite the freeze on settlements, the Israeli government announced plans for the erection of 22 new homes at a settlement in the Gaza Strip on 31 July. Some outposts were removed by the army only for the settlers to reassemble them at different spots. In addition, the Sharon government continues to build the 370-mile ’security wall‘ separating Israel from the West Bank, at times encroaching deep into Palestinian territory. As regards prisoners, Israel released 486 political detainees but then made scores of fresh arrests, detaining possibly three Palestinians for every one released.
All these factors have resulted in an intensified Palestinian anger and despair. However, the greatest provocation is Israel‘s policy of assassination. On 8 August, despite the truce, Israeli forces killed two Hamas militants and, later, two Palestinian protesters. Four days later, two suicide bombers killed two Israelis in retaliation. Until 12 August, and since the truce began, the Israelis killed some nine Palestinians without Palestinian reaction.
But the decisive event was Israel‘s killing of Mohammed Seder, the Hebron leader of Islamic Jihad, on 14 August. The Israelis must have known this would trigger a Palestinian response. Five days later, a suicide bomber killed 22 Israelis on a Jerusalem bus. Two days after that, Israeli forces killed Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader, as a result of which Islamic Jihad declared the truce over. Shanab‘s murder was the opening shot of an offensive during which Israel carried out eight targeted attacks, killing 17 Palestinians and wounding Hamas‘ founder the crippled Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Predictably, on 10 September two suicide attacks killed 15 Israelis.
Israel seems to be pushing a dual strategy. First, phase one of the road map is largely about disarming Palestinian resistance to the occupation. It is for this purpose that two prime ministers, Mahmoud Abbas, and now Ahmad Querei, have been imposed on the Palestinians by the US, sidelining democratically elected president Arafat. Abbas was forced to resign because he was seen as a US stooge unable to wrest significant concessions from Israel. It is laughable that Arafat is accused of sponsoring 'terrorism' and is under threat of execution or deportation, despite having frequently attempted to arrest Islamic militants, most recently on 2 August. The fact remains that Israel's brutal occupation has created a growing mass base for the militant groups. The attempt by Israel and the US to transform Palestinian leaders into colonial policemen is aimed at provoking civil war among the Palestinians.
Second, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel is not really interested in peace, that its strategy is to provoke Palestinian responses to its attacks, then to cow the Palestinians into submission by massive retaliation. In other words, when Israel talks about peace, what it means is Palestinian surrender. The history of Palestinian resistance suggests that neither strategy will work.